“Forget that one,” I said. “It looks charming, the food smells great, and the liquor is top-shelf. Obviously we can’t go there.”
We were walking through Trieste, Italy, passing one adorable trattoria after another. Rich gazed longingly at the cozy interiors and clusters of sidewalk tables loaded with fresh pasta, succulent pork, fried fish, and the region’s glorious Barolo wines.
“We’re on a quest,” I reminded him firmly. “There’s a dive bar out there, and we will find it.”
Tonight we had vowed to track down authentic local options, avoiding the cookie-cutter places offering tourists a predictable, packaged regional food experience and overpriced drinks. The odds were clearly in our favor, because when he’d Googled Trieste that afternoon, Rich had discovered dozens of listings for dive bars.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the American term “dive bar,” it refers to a well-worn, unpretentious local place that can be anything from a comfy, no-frills neighborhood pub to the kind of squalid gin joint that requires burning your clothes afterwards. Those of our friends and relatives who gravitate toward the finer things in life tend to abhor places that are dark and dingy with peanut shells on the floor, tattooed pool players, and juke boxes featuring country western hits from 1987. We, on the other hand, find them amusing and were curious to see what Italy had to offer along these lines.
You can imagine our disappointment when these so-called “dive bars” turned out to be adorable little taverns. “Don’t these people know what a dive bar is?” complained Rich. “Where’s the smell of stale beer? The neon sign on the fritz? The bar stools held together with duct tape?”
Obviously we would have to strike out on our own. It took a while, but eventually I passed a half-open door through which I glimpsed a young woman standing behind a black Formica bar topped with scarred wood. Stepping in, I discovered a large room painted matte black where heavily tattooed young people were moving amplifiers and mopping the floor.
“Sorry, we’re closed,” said the bartender.
“Oh, too bad,” I said. “We just wanted to stop in for a drink.” And then (a trick I’ve learned in these situations) I just stood there, waiting to see what would happen.
“Well, we can sell you a beer,” offered one of the guys. Bingo!
I explained our quest to the bartender, a Russian known as “Yeah Katerina,” and her boyfriend, Marco. They told me this wasn’t a bar but an alternative music venue called Tetris, run on a volunteer basis by musicians. I asked Marco about his tattoos, and he showed me the one he got in memory of his beloved grandfather, which naturally led to life stories and philosophy. “I know I will never be rich or famous playing the kind of music I play,” said Marco, whose day job involves clerical work in a hospital. “But it’s what I love.”
Eventually Yeah Katerina announced, “We need to lock up. Come with us, I’ll show you my friend’s place. It might be a dive bar.” We walked to a modest little place called Viva, where over beer and potato chips we talked politics, archeology, and religion, arguing the merits of meritocracy and whether the Beatles were really that great (yes they were!). It was tremendous fun. And while some sticklers might not consider either of these venues to be true dive bars, they sure delivered a local experience.
There was little doubt about the qualifications of our next candidate, the San Francisco in Padova. The bartender was totally friendly, half drunk, and very slightly acquainted with the English language. We pantomimed our desire for beer. He filled a glass with white wine and took a swig. Then he produced beer glasses, filled them to overflowing, levelled the foam with a knife, dunked the base of each glass in water and wiped it clean. It was the most elaborate prep I'd ever seen on a draft. He chatted away, telling us to go see the Giotto frescoes at the nearby Scrovegni Chapel; this seemed so wildly out of character that I began wondering if I should revoke his dive bar status. Then he dropped and shattered his wineglass, poured himself a rum and coke, and became considerably less coherent. Definitely a dive bar.
But it wasn’t until we reached Torino that we hit the motherlode. There were a dozen dive bars right in our neighborhood, many identified simply by a neon sign saying “BAR,” all providing cheap beer and a rich cast of local characters.
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy excellent food and up-market drinks as much as the next person. So why am I drawn to dive bars? Because everyone is welcome there. You don’t have to wear fancy clothes, hold down a trendy job, or be able to pay $17 for a glass of wine without blinking. Nobody cares how thin or old you are or what, if anything, you are driving. It’s extremely refreshing.
Not all dive bars are quite that friendly, of course, and some are a bit too dodgy even for us diehard fans. But in a world where differences so often divide us, it’s great to know that places exist, maybe right in your neighborhood, where your own unique voice and quirky character will always be a welcome addition to the mix. Cheers.
Know a good dive bar anywhere in the world? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below! If you have photos, send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our current location: Lyon, France
Days on the road: 88
Distance covered: 5413 km / 3363 miles
Highlights have included zany Amsterdam, the German city of Lübeck on the edge of the Baltic Sea, the Stockholm disaster, the new foodie mecca of Helsinki, Finland, futuristic Estonia, and a kookie visit to Riga, Latvia. We headed south to Šiauliai, Lithuania, where history — and great chocolate — were made. Vilnius — and the tiny Republic of Užupis— taught me about miracles; I learned something new about devils in southern Lithuania and northern Poland. In Warsaw, we learned that nothing is what it seems. We rode the midnight bus to Lviv, Ukraine, and after many adventures there, we moved on to Hungary, with a brief stopover in Budapest and a somewhat too-peaceful rest stop in Pécs. We loved Zagreb (10 points if you know where that is!) and are now making our way back to Seville via Italy and France.
To follow our adventures as they unfold, subscribe to my blog, like my Facebook page, and keep checking the map of our journey.
I'm an American travel writer currently living in California.
My weekly updates contain tips for keeping our mental equilibrium and living more authentically during these turbulent times.